Over the last nine weeks, we’ve chronicled the best players at each field position and the best starters the AL has to offer. Here, we’ll wrap up this particular run with the National League’s best starters.
I’ve often commented on the level of difficulty each list gave me during its construction, and this one, like the AL list, gave me trouble because there were a good number of candidates for the back half of the list. I feel strongly about the top five, but I think 6-15 could go in a lot of directions.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these rankings as a topic of debate and a way to preview the 2013 season. We’ll pick up next Saturday with other types The Nine lists, but we’ll revisit these lists throughout the season to see how well they prepared us for the future.
9. Johnny Cueto (Reds)
Cueto has pretty consistently outperformed his peripherals in the past and finally had a top shelf season this year in Cincinnati. Cueto remains in his prime and pitches in front of a pretty complete team. I thought about some other guys for this spot, and it killed me to leave Halladay off this list, but this one feels right.
8. Zach Greinke (Dodgers)
Greinke is now a very wealthy man and has a friendly home ballpark. He’s got great stuff but is susceptible to blow up innings. If there wasn’t a bit of a question about his elbow for the start of the season, he’d be a bit higher. Greinke is as talented as almost anyone on the list, but he tends to underperform his peripherals and his health is a bit uncertain.
7. Matt Cain (Giants)
Cain is an absolute workhouse with great control whose WAR undervalues him because it doesn’t appreciate his apparent ability to limit BABIP. He’s never missed a start in seven seasons, clearly has no-hit stuff and is very reliable. The ace of the world champs belongs on any list of this kind, and his contract looks incredible compared to some of the big signings of late.
6. Gio Gonzalez (Nationals)
Gio is a bit wild, but the strikeout rate and the walk rate are trending in the right direction. I’m not his biggest fan and there will certainly be steroid talk this season, but the numbers are telling me he’s a top six starter for next season. I’d rather have Cain or Greinke on my club, but if we’re going to try to be objective about next year, we probably have to give the edge to Gio.
5. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
Wainwright had two Cy Young type seasons in 2009 and 2010 before missing all of 2011 after having Tommy John’s Surgery. It took him a few months to return to form, and looks locked in and ready to go. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game when he’s healthy and all signs point to a big season from the 31 year old ace of the Cardinals.
4. Cliff Lee (Phillies)
Lee is coming off five excellent seasons in which he threw 211 innings or more. He has amazing control and a fine strikeout rate. He only has one Cy Young on his shelf, but this lefty ace could easily have a couple more. He is, without a doubt, owner of the best 6-9 season in baseball history and shows no sign of slowing down.
3. Cole Hamels (Phillies)
Everything about Cole Hamels’ game is awesome. Strikeouts, few walks, durability. He doesn’t quite have the ceiling of the others, but he’s consistency keeps him at the top of this list. The changeup is one of the best in the game and he remains the youngest of the Phillies aces heading into 2013.
2. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers)
Kershaw is awesome. I don’t think I have to say anything else. He’s 25, has a Cy Young and a couple of near misses. He’s the best left handed pitcher in the game and should be for years to come. The only question about Kershaw is if he or Verlander will break the $200 million barrier for starters.
1. Stephen Strasburg (Nationals)
Last season was all about the innings limit. When he’s allowed to pitch, he is off the charts incredible. His career strikeout rate is 11.21 with a 2.71 BB/9. If he can hold up and stay healthy, he’s the best pitcher in the league. His stuff is amazing to watch. Is he Justin Verlander? Maybe not. Is he as close as any right hander in the game, you bet. Stephen Strasburg is the real deal.
What do you think? Kershaw or Strasburg? Or, someone else?
Compiling a list of The Nine best left fielders proved interesting this season because so many of the players on this list were not full time left fielders last season. By my count, three or four of the top nine spent time at a different position in 2012 and as of this publication, they are not all 100% locks to play left field. If you’re reading this during the season and are like, “Hey, #1 plays centerfield!” you might be right. Please take the positionality of the outfielders with a grain of salt.
That said, this was a very deep list. Apologies to many who didn’t make the cut. Prove me wrong and end up on next year’s list.
9. Curtis Granderson/Brett Gardner (Yankees)
Now it may seem strange to have the ninth spot go to two players, but I’m just not sure which Yankee is going to be in left field this season and either one would fit right here on my list, so it’s both of them. Whichever plays there, lands here. Granderson hits for power, but Gardner is much better at getting on base and plays a much better defense. Both players have great aspects of their games and both have weaknesses.
8. Yoenis Cespedes (Athletics)
Cespedes hit nicely in 2012, but missed 33 games and played below average defense. It’s hard to be sure about those flaws because we don’t have any great data from his time playing in Cuba, but he has all the necessary tools to excel in the majors. My hesitation with him is merely that I don’t have nearly as much information about him as I do for everyone else on the list. If he repeats his 2012, he’ll move up the list quickly.
7. Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies)
CarGo’s place on this list is really a testament to his contemporaries rather than a knock on him. He’s on base a lot and hits for power to go along with some good baserunning chops. His defense is something of an open question because certain people love it and certain people hate it. Gonzalez gets help from his park to some degree, so that will cost him just a spot or so on the list. Great player, but not a top five left fielder for 2013.
6. Justin Upton (Braves)
Upton still has his prime ahead of him and is moving to the Braves and left field to play with his brother, but he also had a rough season in 2012 compared to a great 2011. Most people see the talent and expect great things, but he also seems to have developed the reputation as an underperformer. The change of scenery should be good for him because his coaching staff and front office won’t be looking to trade him every day. A good season for Upton is ahead, but not a great one.
5. Matt Holliday (Cardinals)
Holliday is a great and consistent offensive performer and is just starting to slow down defensively at 33. He’s the centerpiece of a great lineup and hasn’t been worth fewer than 4 WAR since 2006. The ceiling might be lower than Upton, but the floor is higher.
4. Alex Gordon (Royals)
Gordon took a while to arrive relative to expectations, but he finally did in 2011 and followed it with a great 2012. He’s a gold glove defender in left and does everything well. Power, speed, and discipline mix nicely in Gordon and for my money, after Ben Zobrist, is probably baseball’s most underrated player. The Royals might not have enough to contend this year, but they have a star in left.
3. Bryce Harper (Nationals)
Harper is another player moving to left this season, and he’s doing it on baseball’s best team. He had a great season for a teenager at 19 and another year under his belt should only make him better. Harper is often referred to as a generational talent, but even if he isn’t Mantle or Mays, a single step forward from last season should be enough to put him near the top of this list. Harper does everything well and should be at the top of this list for years to come.
2. Ryan Braun (Brewers)
Ryan Braun is arguably baseball’s best all-around player. He is an MVP at the plate, runs the bases well, and is consistently improving his defense in left. He’s entering his prime despite having a collection of elite seasons already under his belt and has never missed more than twelve games in a season in five and a half big league seasons. The fact that Braun is second on this list despite that resume tells you something about the man ahead of him.
1. Mike Trout (Angels)
Mike Trout had an all-time great season at 20. The guys who do that, tend to be all-time greats. He hit for power and average, ran the bases as well as anyone in the game, and was among the very best defensive centerfielders in the sport. He was, by far, the best player in the league in 2012. That performance is not something you can easily duplicate, but even 75% of what he was last season would be enough to challenge Braun for first on this list. If Trout was half as good as he was last season, he would still be a perennial all-star. Mike Trout might not be the best player in the league for years to come, but it’s hard not to dream on his talent and get caught up in his 2012 season. Lost in this love letter to Trout is that there is a player on the Angels who is good enough on defense that he is pushing Trout to left in 2013; Peter Bourjos. Trout is the best left fielder for 2013 only because there is someone on his team who is a better defensive centerfielder than he is. Pretty amazing.
Like this list? Hate this list? Have a more nuanced feeling about this list? Join the discussion in the comments section or on Facebook and Twitter.
Preseason Prediction: Cole Hamels (LHP – Philadelphia Phillies)
Hamels had a strong season in 2012 for the disappointing Phillies, posting a 4.5 WAR (good for 7th in the NL) and signing a monster contract extension. He went 17-6 in 215.1 innings with a 3.05 ERA and 3.30 FIP. The strikeout rate was excellent at 9.03 next to a great walk rate of 2.17. The Phillies lefthander didn’t have a good enough year to earn my Cy Young praise, but he had a very strong season and should be acknowledged for it.
And the award goes to…
Just like in the AL, three strong candidates emerge for the 2012 NL Cy Young award, but the SABR Toothed Tigers have to give it to someone who sabermetrics can’t quite understand; R.A. Dickey.
Dickey had a phenomenal season by most standards, but WAR doesn’t like him as much as our other two finalists, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez. There is a simple reason for this, however. FIP (one of the biggest drivers of WAR) doesn’t know what to do with knuckleballers because they are so rare and have different results profiles than a standard hurler. That said, Dickey was still 6th in the NL in WAR in 2012.
Dickey’s 20-6 record doesn’t mean anything but he tossed 233.2 innings and posted solid strikeout (8.86) and walk numbers (2.08) to go along with his strong 2.73 ERA. His FIP was elevated, but that’s because FIP doesn’t understand him.
The only thing Gonzalez did better than Dickey was strike hitters out, but he threw way fewer innings walked more and had a higher ERA. WAR likes him better, but that’s the knuckleball problem and nothing else.
Kershaw is the strong contender. He tossed six fewer innings, had a higher K rate and higher BB rate, and posted a lower ERA. The WAR spread is +0.9 WAR for Kershaw, but I can’t help wonder how much that gap would close if FIP understood knuckleballers. It would at least close some.
I think Dickey and Kershaw are both good choices, but it’s hard not to give the tie breaker to the guy who threw more innings for a worse team and did so in such a fun way. Dickey was a great story and I’ll always give the tiebreaker to the better story. Plus it is hard not to love Dickey’s NL leading 5 complete games.
We can find plenty of worthy arms in the NL, but R.A. Dickey is this year’s best.
5. Cole Hamels (LHP – Philadelphia Phillies)
4. Cliff Lee (LHP – Philadelphia Phillies)
3. Gio Gonzalez (LHP – Washington Nationals)
2. Clayton Kershaw (LHP – Los Angeles Dodgers)
1. R.A. Dickey (RHP – New York Mets)